“For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina”: Advice on motherhood through the ages

When you have a baby everyone gives you advice. Some of this is excellent (to this day the best thing I’ve ever been told in regards to child rearing is “lower your standards. If things are still hard, you didn’t lower them enough” – as a result my carpets rarely get hoovered and we pretend not to see the ‘best before end’ date on food, but my sanity has remained intact.)

Much of the advice is well meaning, but hopeless: “sleep when the baby sleeps” is a lovely phrase but what should I do if she doesn’t – ever?

Most of it, though, is tripe: “enjoy every second”, “don’t complain, it all goes by so fast.”

I just couldn’t understand those who spouted out the tripey advice; what was it I was supposed to enjoy, exactly? My daughter, like all other newborns, was distinctly useless at first and completely unable to help me out in any way. At bathtime I ended up bent over the tub like Quasimodo, one arm frantically scooping water onto her chest and one arm doing the job her neck should have been doing, which was holding up her gigantic, lolling head. I had similar problems getting her into the car, getting her dressed, changing her nappy: limbs flailing madly, none of them in the right direction, and most of them, somehow, covered in poo.

As time went on my daughter’s neck started pulling its weight and I didn’t rely on hours of physio after every bath time so I started to enjoy motherhood. But no sooner had we worked out how this small dictator child worked, then the advice changed again.

“Don’t wean her too soon or she’ll end up with underformed bowels.” “Don’t let her sleep in your room or she’ll never move out.” “Don’t wean her too late or she’ll be a fussy eater.” “Limit TV to only 30 minutes a week and even then only allow her to watch bilingual educational videos.” “Let her sleep in your room until she’s an adult woman – insist that she raise her own children there too.”

It got me thinking about motherhood advice through history. Were there medieval pamphlets on the pros and cons of cloth nappies? Tudor ‘yummy mummies’ on Instagram showing us how to whip up vegan, organic, zero-waste baby-friendly smoothies? Not quite, but almost.

Getting pregnant (AKA the fun bit)

So you’ve decided you don’t need to sleep or shit alone again for the rest of your life.

The 2nd century Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus believed he’d come up with a good indication of female virility so that prospective partners could make the best decisions when picking a mate. According to this highly learned doctor, women “from the ages of fifteen to forty” who were “not mannish, compact, oversturdy or too flabby” had been endowed with a natural virility.

If finding such a woman by physical appearance alone was problematic, Soranus had a solution: an alternative way to check a woman’s fertility was to inspect her uterus. To conceive a child a woman’s uterus should be “neither very moist or dry, not too lax or constricted.” I don’t know how one was supposed to check out a woman’s uterus before committing to her (though I imagine it made for a pretty awkward date night activity) but it clearly struck a chord with those in the medical profession; Soranus’ writings set the precedent in gynaecology and obstetrics for almost 1,500 years.

In contrast, women with small heads and eyes were more likely to struggle to conceive. Likewise, women with protruding foreheads were best avoided if one was hoping to start a family (Rouselle 1988, p. 22).

If Soranus’ ideas haven’t put you off relying on ancient science to conceive then you might also want to consider the work of the Greek physicians Hippocrates (c. 460-c.370 BC) and Galen (129-c.210 CE).


Though centuries apart, these two men together shaped much of the medical knowledge found in medical textbooks and universities up to the 16th century. Hippocrates – whose influence on medicine remains so great that the now defunct Hippocratic oath was named after (but not attributed to) him – is chiefly known for developing humoral theory. This was the belief that the human body was made up of four key fluids (blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile) which, when disrupted or imbalanced, caused mood changes and even illness. This theory would crop up in most Western medical teachings for the next two thousand years or so.

Hippocrates was also preoccupied with female fertility. Out of 1500 or so recipes for medicine in Hippocrates’ work, 80% of them relate to gynaecology (Totelin 2009).

Unfortunately, Hippocrates’ teachings tended to place the burden of conception squarely on the shoulders of women; male infertility was not something he considered a likely issue in problems with conception. Among others, Hippocrates wrote that some of the problems women faced when trying to conceive included:

  1. A too narrow passage between the vagina and cervix which may also have become blocked by the retention of “old” coagulated menstrual blood and thus prevented sperm reaching the uterus.
  2. An “inability” of the uterus to retain the sperm due to its failure to “close” shut once the sperm had entered. 
  3. A humoral imbalance in the woman which led to conditions that were too hot or cold in the uterus, thus “overcooking” or “[drying] out” the sperm (Verskin 2020, 138).

‘For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina’ was basically Hippocrates’ attitude.

Hippocrates also advocated for a “two seed” theory; that in order to make a baby, ‘male seed’ and ‘female seed’ were necessary. In both cases, the seed could only be produced during arousal. This led physicians who followed the ‘two seed’ theory down some pretty ropey conception theories: husbands were encouraged to ensure their wives enjoyed sex, so as to ensure a fruitful production of ‘female seed’ and therefore increase the chances of making a baby. So far, so sex-positive. The negative aspect to this theory was of course the issue of conception arising from non-consensual sex. Though rape was condemned in most ancient societies, the ‘two seed’ theory allowed some to argue that pregnancy was evidence of a woman’s enjoyment of sex and, therefore, evidence of her willing participation, even if she hadn’t consented.

Writing some five or six hundred years after Hippocrates, Galen sought to add weight to the ‘two seed’ theory by attaching to it the ‘one sex’ theory (stay with me now, I’m almost done.)

The ‘one sex’ theory promoted the belief that women’s reproductive organs were an interior version of a man’s, but that due to an absence of necessary heat while the woman was in her mother’s womb, they failed to turn outside, rendering women a sort of inferior version of men (Schleiner 2000).

I don’t know what the thing on the far right is. Maybe a floating scrotum? Credit here.

It made sense to Galen, then, that women produced semen in much the same way as men did, though the semen was produced inside their bodies which, because of the aforementioned defectiveness of female organs, could lead to problems. Galen believed that menstrual blood was a both a consequence of female defectiveness and also a necessary element of conception as it provided the uterus with texture, without which the “male seed” would slip out before it could mingle with the ‘female seed’. A woman who therefore suffered irregular periods or had gone through menopause, Galen argued, was far less likely to conceive than a woman who “enjoyed” regular periods. Galen was playing quite fast and loose with the word ‘enjoy’ there, I think, but we’ll move on.

But what if both partners enjoyed sex and a baby wasn’t made? Well, for those diagnosed with infertility Hippocrates had a variety of solutions. The most common ones included pessaries of herbs, fumigation or probing of the vagina to remove “blockages” and changing one’s diet. In his empathetically entitled treatise On Barrenness, Hippocrates also advocated eating boiled puppies and/or fumigating one’s vagina with smoke from their burned carcasses. The argument was that puppies supposedly had a laxative effect, which would dislodge any coagulated menstrual blood and allow the passage between the cervix and vagina to open (Verskin 2020, 139). You’re welcome to try it, but the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Britain is five years; you’ll miss the cute chubby toddler years and be landed with a stroppy school kid by the time you get out.

Pregnancy and childbirth

So let’s assume all your puppy-eating has paid off and you’re with child. Congratulations.

But no sooner does that little red line appear on the pregnancy test then a whole host of other questions and problems come to the fore: what food can I eat or not eat? How much exercise should I do? Was that a twinge of labour or do I just need a big fart (it’s always a big fart – even when you’re actually in labour, it will still be a big fart.)

The Trotula, a 12th century compendium of the medical conditions of women, states that when a woman is just starting out her 9 month journey it’s vitally important that no one mention in front of her the long list of things she is not allowed to eat (Green 2002, 77).

“What is this? Don’t care – can I eat it?”

Trotula argued this was to prevent pregnant women from becoming fixated on out-of-bounds food, not just for their own health, but the sake of their unborn child, which was apparently as risk of miscarriage if they ruminated on smoked salmon or soft cheese for too long.

On the subject of farting, Trotula had a remedy. Taking celery, mint and cowbane and mixing it with a combination of mastic, cloves, watercress, sugar, honey and wine (as well as other herbs) could apparently cure even the guffiest mother.

To reduce the swelling that often accompanies pregnancy, the 15th century manuscript Sloane 2463 recommended making a paste of bean-meal flour, vinegar and oil and anointing it on the areas that were swollen (Rowlands 1981, 153). Some lucky women might have got away with only needing to apply it to their fingers or ankles; for me I’d have needed a full body cast.

The last trimester of pregnancy is often one of the hardest, and women have resorted to all kinds of tricks to induce labour and kick their ever expanding lodger out.

For women in their final month eager to meet their screaming bundles of joy and light, taking a bath with herbs could apparently help speed labour along, especially if the woman drank an ounce of balsam sap in wine afterwards. If she couldn’t afford balsam sap then she could make do with a cocktail of bull’s gall and wine instead, or “the water from a man’s skin after he has washed his hands”. If bull’s gall and bathwater wasn’t her thing she could try a combination of hyssop juice and mercury which would “cast out the child alive or dead”. Well, quite.

Assuming that these drinks worked, what was one supposed to do when the birthday arrived? By the 15th century there were plenty of European manuscripts detailing the medical problems of women, but relatively few that dealt in detail with childbirth itself (Rowlands 1981, 22).

This was probably down to the fact that midwifery was usually the domain of women, and the writers were usually men who either didn’t know how to help women give birth or, more possibly, didn’t care.

Women’s health wasn’t always counted as ‘proper’ medicine worthy of book writing – and in 1421 a petition was put forward to the English parliament banning women from practising as physicians (Green 1989), so chances for women to elevate the status of midwifery remained slim.

In fact, so limited was the information on how to help women give birth that one 14th century treatise recommended that women should be encouraged to sneeze the child out. Similarly, the 15th century work Inventarium also recommended labouring women sniff pepper, which would induce sneezing. It hardly goes without saying that both authors were male. Guy de Chauliac commented “because the matter [of childbirth] requires the attention of women, there is no point in giving much consideration to it.” I bet he wasn’t brave enough to say that to a labouring woman, though.

Anyway, Sloane 2463 does cover what to do when giving birth. Chapter 10, “sickness that women have in childbearing”, covers a great deal of potential problems which it divides into two types: ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.

With a natural birth the child should “come out in twenty pangs…head first.” So far, so simple. If the child was a stubborn bugger, however, and refused to come out within twenty “pangs” (bless) or headfirst, this was termed an ‘unnatural’ birth. There were apparently 16 ways a child could be born ‘unnaturally’ and, in diagrams that were simultaneously helpful and hilarious, the writer had provided sketches highlighting the ‘unnatural’ ways. The three here are my favourites.

Raising the buggers

Assuming you’ve survived childbirth (research is ongoing but it’s estimated that among the lower classes in England during the 14th – 16th centuries, between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 women died either giving birth or from complications afterwards), how should you go about raising them to be decent humans?

For this section I’m jumping forward several centuries to the trustiest of Victorian cooks, Mrs Beeton. Her book Household Management wasn’t just a collection of bland restrained recipes, it also contained practical advice on the rearing of children.

Almost immediately I began to suspect that Mrs Beeton’s experience of motherhood was slightly divergent to my own.

“The mistress [of the house]” she began, quoting Proverbs XXXI “eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed…” (Project Gutenberg 2003)

I thought back to this morning when my child had arisen at 5:30 and waddled into my room, calling for the iPad instead.

One piece of advice that might raise a few eyebrows today was the instruction to breastfeeding mothers to drink large quantities of malt liquor. Mrs Beeton believed that the strength of this alcohol had certain reinvigorating qualities which would aid production of milk and help stave off maternal exhaustion. “To the lady accustomed to her Madeira and sherry, [malt liquors] may appear a very vulgar potation for a delicate young mother to take…”

In fact, Mrs Beeton spent rather a lot of time discussing alcohol and motherhood. As any mother will tell you, this isn’t that surprising.

According to Mrs B, brandy was less beneficial than wine for nursing mothers, though would do if there was nothing else in. Be careful of port, though, as that could affect the baby’s bowl movements as it passed through the milk.

But the very best alcoholic beverage a breastfeeding mother could drink was stout, of which mothers were instructed to drink no less than half a pint, three to four times a day.

No photo description available.
As a “delicate young mother”, sitting alone in the babycage playpen, I preferred to drink white wines rather than port.

Her advice on drinking and breastfeeding might have been a bit out of touch with today’s standards, but there were moments where her tips were surprisingly modern. She gave pretty thorough and sympathetic advice to mothers who were bottle feeding their child (“hand rearing”, as she called it) and, as someone who bottle fed her own child, I found much of what she said was less judgemental than 21st century advice: “A child can be brought up as well on a spoon dietary as the best example to be found on those reared on the breast; having more strength, indeed, from the more nutritious food on which it lives.”

As the child grew, Mrs Beeton’s advice changed. She recommended a fairly bland, milk heavy diet for young children. This was common for the time, the belief being that children’s stomachs could only deal with uncomplex flavours and nothing too heavy. One of the few times Beeton strays from the advice to give children milk, however, was when serving a drink called Negus which involved mixing pints of port, sherry or white wine with water and sugar and serving at children’s parties.

Another Victorian book, How I managed my children from infancy to marriage by Eliza Warren stressed the importance of teaching children to obey from a young age. “A babe of three months, when I held up my finger and put on a grave look, knew that such was the language of reproof…” (Warren 1865, 27.) (I have tried this on my child – it does not work.)

The way to achieve this level of obedience was through repetition – Ms Warren stated that children must learn that crying was “useless” and that if they wanted something they should wait patiently, or do without.

But perhaps the most amusing thing from How I managed my children was the account of mealtimes with young children. Like Mrs Beeton, Ms Warren followed a milk heavy, reasonably bland diet for her children, apart from one day of the week when the meal that was served was “always hailed with delight, and always looked forward to.” What was this magical, awe inspiring dinner? Boiled onions.

As if that wasn’t a treat enough, Ms Warren recounted gleefully that the children were also allowed chives on their bread and butter with this meal too. The whole meal combined, she said, was an excellent cure for worms. Nice.

If you’re thinking that there’s really nothing here useful to new parents and that people throughout history have just been muddling along in the dark when it came to childrearing, you’d be right. But before I finish, I’ll leave you with this one final piece of advice from Ms Warren that I know I’ll struggle to accept as my daughter gets older and her world gets bigger, but that I must: “…if we[love] our children we must give up our own selfish feeling of desiring to have them always with us and so place them in positions that we should be enabled to feel life again renewed in their happiness.” (Warren 1865, 57.)

Happy birthday, G.

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Bibliography (yes, I actually did one this time but no, it’s not in alphabetical order because if I have to spend any longer on these bloody citations I will actually die of boredom.)

Rousselle, A. 1988. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Totelin, L. 2009. Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth and Fourth Century Greece. Boston: Brill.

Verskin, S. 2020. Barren Women: Religion and Medicine in the Medieval Middle East. De Gruyter: Berlin.

Schleiner, W., (2000) Early Modern Controversies about the One-Sex Model. Renaissance Quarterly [online]. 53 (1), 180–191. [12.06.2020]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2307/2901536

Green, M. 2002. The Trotula. Pennslyvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rowlands, B. 1981. Medieval Women’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook Ohio: Kent State University Press.

Green, M. (1989) Women’s Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe. Signs [online] 14 (2), 434-73. [27.03.2021] Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174557

Project Gutenberg., (2003) The Book of Household Management [online] Project Gutenberg. [Viewed 27.03.2021] Available from: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10136/pg10136.html

Warren, E. 1865. How I managed my children from infancy to marriage. London: Houlston and Wright.

“No jokes please, we’re British”: Surprise Potato Balls 1940s.

I realised I’d been neglecting my 20th century history, so today’s experiment is an attempt to rectify that.

In all honesty I chose it because of the title: surprise potato balls. What’s not to like?

The recipe came courtesy of the Ministry of Food, which was the government department tasked with rationing during World War Two.

Technically, the original ministry was established in 1916 to regulate food stocks and deal with supply and trade issues. This first ministry was disbanded in 1921 and for the next 18 years Britain was presumably overflowing with unregulated cheese and never-ending supplies of luncheon paste.

But alas, with the dawning of World War Two the nation was plunged into desperation again, and the second ministry was set up in September of 1939. Its role was similar to the first one, but as well as rationing it was also tasked with researching ways food could be used and preserved.

Ration books were issued to every person in the land with different coupons depending on your age and health. Pregnant women and nursing mothers, for example, were allowed a supply of 1 pint of milk per day when (by 1942) the typical allowance for others was 3 pints per week.

By the end of the war the only things not covered by rationing were fresh fruit and veg. The government, eager to encourage the use of as much of these non rationed foodstuffs as possible, published leaflets with an array of questionable and unappetising enigmatic and inventive recipes for desperate cooks to try out at home. And the veg with the most potential? The humble spud.

Oh, how the ministry loved potatoes. Perhaps Lord Woolton, the minister for food during World War Two had shares in a potato farm. Perhaps he just loved chips. But the ministry churned out pro-potato propaganda as if people’s lives depended on it. Which, I guess, they sort of did.

A superfood?

“There is no vegetable more useful than the potato”, one leaflet cried. The potato provided “fine energy” as well as being a “protective food”, crowed another. People were advised to eat at least 12 ounces or even 1lb of potatoes a day, in any form they could stomach.

Don’t get me wrong – I love potatoes. Any type of potato is fine by me, but I have to admit that even I’d begin to find a never ending diet of mash, chips and roasties a little dull. So, to prevent people getting too bored, the government created the not at all creepy character Potato Pete – a cheeky, slightly pervy potato cartoon who they hoped would appeal to housewives everywhere.

Why are your eyes so red, Potato Pete?

Potato Pete even came with his own potato recipe book, complete with brightly coloured pictures of him spouting out catchphrases, or linking arms with delighted and presumably lobotomised human women who skipped off giddly into the sunset with him, a potato.

Do you remember Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete?
Who knew the pied piper of housewives was a potato?

Making Surprise Potato Balls

One of the recipes in Potato Pete’s recipe book is for Surprise Potato Balls. The writers of the booklet did at least have the wherewithal not to call them Potato Pete’s Surprise Potato Balls, but I still found them hilarious, because I have the sense of humour of a ten year old.

They were straightforward enough: mashed potato with grated carrot and parsley, rolled into balls. I peeled the potatoes, which was a mistake because the ministry actually encouraged people to eat the skins to minimise waste.

One the balls were done, each one was filled with a teaspoon of Branston pickle and then rolled in breadcrumbs and baked for 15 minutes.

The surprise was obviously meant to be the shot of sweet and tangy chutney, but in reality it was how underwhelming these were. I’m not sure what I expected, it being a wartime recipe and all, but the potato was extremely bland. The recipe had said to use milk only if it was absolutely required, which it wasn’t, so I hadn’t. There was no butter or margarine included. This meant that the flavour was quite lacklustre and a little watery.

I served the potato balls with brown gravy (another war time staple, for fashion reasons as much as culinary ones) and the whole effect was of a meal of filling, hot, beigeness. And I suppose that was the point: war was not luxurious. People were making the best of what they had and if a meal could manage to fill you up without tasting outright awful then that was cause to stick it in a recipe book and encourage others to try it.

Potatoey, gravy, chutney goodness.

If you’d like to see Potato Pete’s Potato Balls in full swing (gross) then head over to YouTube where you can watch me make these.

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This post is part of Twinkl’s VE Day Campaign, and is featured in their Best Wartime Recipes to Celebrate VE Day from Home post”

Surprise Potato Balls

450g or 2 cups of potato
A jar of sweet pickle, such as Branston’s
1 large carrot
Teaspoon chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

  1. Chop and boil your potatoes. (For a more authentic WW2 experience don’t peel them first.)
  2. Once they are soft, drain the potatoes and mash them with a fork.
  3. Grate the carrot and add it to the mashed potato.
  4. Add the salt, pepper and chopped parsley and combine fully.
  5. Roll the mixture into balls that are slightly smaller than the size of your palm and place on a baking tray.
  6. Make an indent in each ball with your finger and dollop a teaspoon or so of pickle into the hole.
  7. Reseal the holes and roll each potato ball in breadcrumbs.
  8. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees C (356 F) for about 15 minutes.
  9. Serve with brown gravy.

“Tooth decay for the whole family!” White Gingerbread: 1591

Today’s experiment is for those who enjoy the sweeter things in life. Quite literally, because if you eat too much of this recipe your teeth will melt and fill the leftover indents in your gums with brown tooth-and-sugar sap which will eventually dribble down your chin and onto your chest, ruining your favourite shirt.

Quite an image.

I’m only half joking, too. No, there isn’t some sort of bone dissolving ingredient – but the recipe is about 75% sugar, so you have been warned: eat in moderation.

I bought Sam Bilton’s book First Catch Your Gingerbread late last year and have wanted to do something gingery ever since. If you haven’t got it yet, you should; it’s a really thoroughly researched, well written and accessible read which covers the history of gingerbread not just in Britain but the rest of Europe as well as Asia too. Plus it has loads of recipes to try out, from sweet to savoury and modern to ancient. Most of the info for this post comes from her, so thank you Sam!

When did people start eating ginger?

I don’t have an answer to that.

In fact, I’m not sure anyone does really. Ginger has been used in food for millennia: the Romans had a dish called tractomelitus which was a paste of honey and ginger and could be used in sweet and savoury dishes. Apicius, the 1st century writer, also lists ginger among the spices that should be kept in every kitchen store cupboard, along with myrtle berries and Indian spikenard (I don’t know why I’m telling you this; I’m sure these are everyday staples for all of us, right?)

As well as aqueducts and roads, the Romans also popularised gingerbread men and candycane houses.

Ginger was also used in medicinal remedies. According to ancient Greek thought, the body was made up of four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Sickness was caused by one of these humors becoming unbalanced, and there were certain foods that could redress the balance because they stimulated the production of specific humors. Galen, the 2nd century physician who developed the 4 humor theory, stated that ginger could help reduce the amount of phlegm in the body, for example.

Ginger was thought to increase the amount of blood in the body. This isn’t a completely illogical conclusion to make; being hot and spicy, fresh ginger could cause the skin to flush slightly red when eaten raw. And, because the human mind has always loved the gutter, people throughout time have associated this physiological reaction to carnal attraction. Yes, ginger earned its place as an aphrodisiac fairly early on; the 1st century Persian physician Avicenna recommended mixing ginger and honey into a thick, sweet paste as a cure for impotence and by the 13th century the intriguingly named “Sultan’s Sex Potions” by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi included a ginger-based recipe to “strengthen the sperm and invigorate[s] intercourse.”

Okay, but what about the origins of gingerbread?

You’re not going to like this either, but yet again, I have no answer.

That’s partly down to etymology. The word ‘gingerbread’ isn’t to do with baking; our English word has roots in Old French gingebras which has roots in Latin zingebra: ginger – nothing to do with bread at all. Even more confusingly, once we had the word ‘gingerbread’ it wasn’t used as a description for one specific type of food, but rather alluded to any kind of preserved ginger treat: cakes, biscuits, sweets, pastes and sugarwork. Finally, and just as confoundingly, some of the earliest gingerbread recipes we have don’t contain any ginger.

A 14th century recipe for gingerbread in Curye on Inglysch gives a delicious recipe using breadcrumbs and honey – but is conspicuous in its omission of ginger. Similarly, a 15th century manuscript for ‘Gyngerbrede’ includes spices such as saffron, pepper and cinnamon – but again, no ginger.

My very first historical cooking experiment was the ginger-less gingerbread in Forme of Cury. Modelled here on my kitchen floor. Ah, the early days!

These recipes (as well as others that contained ginger) were often made in large slabs which then sliced into strips or lozenges, rather than baked as individual cakes. In fact, they often weren’t baked at all, meaning that the texture was a sticky, treacle-tart like consistency rather than a hard biscuit.

Some gingerbreads were more like sweets – a 14th century recipe for ‘Pynite‘ (pine nut tarts) has a ‘gingerbread’ filling which is essentially a toffee made from honey and spices.

By the 16th century, banquets had become fashionable for the rich. Contrary to every historical film where Henry VIII tears into chicken legs with his bare hands and rich ladies bat their eyelids over plates of unidentified meat, banquets were sweet-only affairs and referred to a particular course rather than the entire meal itself. These sugar banquets, laden with marzipan constructions, candied fruits, crystallised flowers and sugared nuts, were an opportunity to demonstrate the skill of the household cooks as well as the vast wealth of the host.

Why ‘white gingerbread’? Can you answer that at least?


It’s at banquets that we find the type of gingerbread I’ve attempted here. By the 16th century there were two main types: red gingerbread (often a dough like mixture containing breadcrumbs) and white gingerbread (a marzipan/sugarpaste combination). Red gingerbread included sandalwood which gave it a deep red colour, whereas white gingerbread used the whitest sugar a cook could source, hence the name. Today’s experiment, which is in the 1591 work A Book of Cookrye by the anonymous ‘A.W.’ is of the white variety.

To make White Ginger Bread

Take Gumma Dragagantis half an ounce, and steep it in rosewater two daies, then put thereto a pound of sugar beaten and finely serced, and beate them well together, so that it may be wrought like paste, then role it then into two Cakes, then take a fewe Jordain almonds and blaunch them in colde water, then dry them with a faite Cloth, and stampe them in a morter very finely, adding thereto a little rosewater, beat finely also the whitest Sugar you can get and searce it. Then take Ginger, pare it and beat it very small and serce it, then put in sugar to the almonds and beat them togither very well, then take it out and work it at your pleasure, then lay it even upon one of your cakes, and cover it with an other and when you put it in the mould, strewe fine ginger both above and beneath, if you have not great store of Sugar, then take rice and beat it small and serce it, and put it into the morter and beat them altogither.

A Book of Cookrye, ‘A. W.’

Making 16th century gingerbread

First of all, I was surprised to see that gum tragacanth was used. I’d only seen it in the specialities section of supermarkets with the likes of glycerin and had therefore assumed it was a relatively modern invention. Perhaps in its highly refined powdered form it it, but it appears the Tudors were well aware of gum tragacanth and its benefits to sugar modelling.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what it did. A quick Google threw up some worrying results to do with leatherwork and cigar-making and I almost backed out of this experiment. Once I read a few more pages I saw that as well as being used for some pretty macho activities, gum tragacanth was also used in cake decorating to make sugarpaste more elastic and malleable.

It’s likely that the gum tragacanth used in the recipe was in a more solid form than the fine white powder I had, hence the instructions to leave it steeping in rose water for two days, presumably to soften it. As it was, I ended up leaving my powder to absorb some rose water for 1 day, by which time it had swollen to breadcrumb sized granules and could be pressed into a hard paste with the back of a spoon.

Dried gum tragacanth (Sainsbury’s didn’t stock this so I had to use powdered instead.) Credit here.

The sugar paste was very straightforward and identical to the kind of sugar paste you get on Christmas cakes (only, ironically, without glycerin – have I used ironically correctly? Probably not.) Once it was made I split it in two and sandwiched a delicious paste of ground almonds, icing sugar and fresh ginger between the two halves. Then it was time to set it in a mould.

Gingerbread moulds were an artwork in themselves. Often quite large, intricate and carved from wood, they would be left by the fireplace to allow the gingerbread inside to set. This presented me with two main problems: one, I didn’t possess a large, intricate gingerbread mould and two, I didn’t have a fire.

File:Traditional gingerbread mold 2 (Piotr Kuczynski).jpg - Wikimedia  Commons
Imagine biting the head off one of these.

Always resourceful, I shaped my gingerbread in what I did have: a silicon cake tin, shaped like a dinosaur. I think it was a Stegosaurus. Instead of a fire I popped it into my boiler cupboard and left it to dry out over a day or two. Hey, it wasn’t authentic but I got points for effort.

Once it had completely dried out I turned my gingerbread out and daubed it with edible gold paint. Tudor sugarwork, including gingerbread, was impressive not just because of the fiddly shapes, but because they were often beautifully gilded with gold leaf and suchlike. Once I was finished my steggy shone like the regal gingery reptile it was.

And there it was! It looked great and tasted good too. The icing shell was toothachingly sweet (and perhaps a tad too thick) but the filling was amazing. Fresh ginger and creamy almonds combined well to make a tangy, punchy frangipane like filling that I could have eaten all day. As it was, the block I made was too large for one person to finish in one sitting, but these could work well in smaller sizes – perhaps made in chocolate moulds.

If you don’t feel you’ve wasted enough of your time reading through my nonsense and have another 10 minutes you never want back, why not head over to my Youtube channel to have a look at the process in full glorious technicolour?

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White Gingerbread

100g or 1/2 cup icing sugar (plus an extra spoonful)
25g or 1/8 cup blanched almonds
A medium piece of ginger (about the size of your thumb.)
Teaspoon of rose water
Teaspoon gum tragacanth
50ml or 1.6 fl. oz. water

  1. Put the gum tragacanth in a bowl and add half of the rose water. Leave it to sit for 12 – 24 hours to allow the tragacanth to absorb all the rose water.
  2. After the tragacanth has absorbed the rose water, sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and add the water and tragacanth. Knead to a solid, smooth ball of icing.
  3. Grind the almonds in a pestle and mortar. Transfer to a bowl.
  4. Peel the ginger and crush it to a pulp in the pestle and mortar, along with the remaining rose water.
  5. Combine the ginger and almonds and add a spoon of icing sugar and combine to form a stiff paste.
  6. Split the icing ball in two and roll out into two discs.
  7. Spread the almond paste on one of the discs and then place the other disc on top, sealing them together.
  8. Push the gingerbread into a mould and leave to set in a dry place for 24 hours or until it has gone hard.
  9. Turn out and decorate with edible gold or whatever you fancy.

“What the hell is sparging?”: Sumerian beer c. 1800 BC

Today’s experiment is something that I’m sure homeschool-weary parents all over the country will be interested in, because it involves alcohol. Beer, actually.

Not just any beer either – 4000 year old beer.

Okay, fine: technically it’s not 4000 years old and technically it’s not what we would recognise as beer, but hey – it’s as good a hook as any.

After a previous semi-successful foray into ancient beer brewing, I decided to give it another shot. This time I wanted to tackle the oldest ‘recipe’ for beer that historians know of, which is found in the 1800 BC Sumerian poem Hymn to Ninkasi.

Given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja! Ninkasi, given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninhursaja!

Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you. Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.

Your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu. Ninkasi, your father is Enki, the lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.

It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.

It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.

It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).

It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.

It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ……. Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …….

It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.

1 line damaged:
You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.

You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.

It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Hymn to Ninkasi, trans The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature

Some recipe, right?

Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer and brewing. Since beer was an absolutely vital element to everyday life as well as the drink of the gods, it’s likely that she was pretty highly revered.

Hymn to Ninkasi, the song she’s best known for (or as well-known as an ancient Mesopotamian goddess can be) is a cross between a poem and an instructional manual. The formulaic nature of the poem has led scholars to argue it was intended to be said aloud, perhaps as an aid to teach brewers the correct steps needed to make a perfect batch of beer.

Although the poem dates to 1800 BC, the brewing process it documents may well be older. Paul Kriwaczek argued that the techniques within the poem were actually in use about 1000 years before 1800 BC which supports the argument that the poem was originally an oral song which was written down later.

Lapis lazuli cylinder seal
You thought a pint was a large serving size? The Sumerians drank from vases…

Sumerian beer: what do I need to know?

Making the beer was a pretty involved process. Don’t try this if you’ve only got a day or two spare – you’re going to need to check up on various elements of the beer every day for just under a week!

Because the poem was a little vague (to say the least…) I ended up having to make up guess a few of the steps. Luckily I had stumbled across the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, which had this brilliant article by Peter Damerow breaking down some of them.

According to him, the early Sumerians had at least 9 types of beer, which developed as the period went on. By the middle of the 3rd millennium BC cuneiform tablets mentioned characteristics of beer, such as “golden”, “dark” and “sweet”. Early wine critics, if you like.

However, there’s one ingredient that stands out in Sumerian records: bappir. The true meaning of this term has been lost and caused scholars a lot of debate. Some think it refers to a type of bread which was added to the beer before the fermentation process. Others think it was a byproduct of the beer, which was then reincorporated to future brews. Regardless of how it created, my understanding of it (based on a frantic internet search) was that it was some sort of barley dough/grain mixture which contributed to the mash.

The symbol for bappir was show in Cuneiform tablets as two signs inscribed on top of one another – one representing barley and one representing a beer jug (𒋋).

This led to bappir being known as ‘beerbread’, but Damerow suggests this term may be misleading. For one thing, the term bread implies it was edible or at least similar to other breads, which it wasn’t. Secondly, whenever bappir appeared on records it wasn’t listed like other breads (i.e. in quantities), but appeared as if it was grain (i.e. by capacity.)

Was bappir less of a bread and more of a grain? I had no idea and to be honest was quite out of my depth. As a no-win compromise, I decided to bake my bappir like a bread and then immediately break it up afterwards like a grain, before adding it to water to create a cold mash.

Mash? As in sausage and…?

As someone who has no experience of brewing, I found I’d been thrust into a world of new words and confusing terminology. Mash, wort, malt – what did they all mean?

My basic understanding of it is that mash is the liquid you get when you add grains to water. Usually this is heated to a specific temperature to let the sugars do some enzym-y mojo and break down, after which you can add yeast and begin the fermentation process.

The trouble was the poem wasn’t clear about the mashing process. The line “the waves rise, the waves fall” may allude to the mashing process and the addition of water to grain, but there was no mention of heat, although later lines reference a cooling the mixture. This raised the possibility that two types of mashe were used: a hot mash, as is standard today, and a cold mash – where grain is added to cold water and left to sit, unheated, for a few hours.

I began some research into cold mashes to see how I should begin. An online beer forum told me that after the cold mash had been completed it needed “sparging”.

Okay, not to panic, that’s what Google was for, I thought. I typed in “what the hell is sparging” and waited.

“Sparging is a part of the lautering process…”

I started again: “What is the lautering process?”

“The lautering process consists of three steps: mashout, recirculation and sparging.”

I took a quick break from research to scream into a pillow.

In the end I decided to refrain from getting too technical, arguing that the Sumerians were hardly likely to worry about exact temperatures and processes. I split my beer into two mashes – a cold one and a hot one – to cover all bases and after both mashes had competed their individual mashing (no idea if that’s the right term) I combined them.

Making the beer

Making the beer was a long, fun, messy process. If you fancy seeing how it was done (and what it tasted like) then give the video below a watch and please consider boosting my already over inflated ego by subscribing to my YouTube channel.

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